Books and the Hungry SoulBy Randall Smith for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC
South Bend, IN. One of the great benefits of being someone who studies the Middle Ages is that I not only have the privilege of reading great books — Dante, Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas — I also have the special privilege of seeing beautiful books. I was reminded of this the other day as I was walking through the reading room of the Medieval Institute at the University of Notre Dame and saw a student poring over a color facsimile of a beautiful Fourteenth Century illuminated manuscript. It was visually stunning. And I thought to myself: “Wow, those people really knew how to make books!” In the age of Kindle, we need to be careful of not losing our appreciation for books.
It’s interesting how the advent of technology does not always bring with it unmitigated progress in all areas. Flying across the Atlantic with my legs tucked up against my chest in one of Continental Airlines’ economy seats is not necessarily better than sailing across the Atlantic on an ocean liner. And flying almost anywhere in the States is not necessarily better than taking a train, especially if you like to read, talk to people, stretch your legs regularly, and breathe real air. Granted, if all you want to do is “get there,” then the plane is probably your best bet. But “faster” isn’t the same thing as “better” or “more civilized,” any more than “fast-food” necessarily means “more nourishing.”
Several weeks ago I heard someone on National Public Radio arguing in defense of books saythat they remain a good “information delivery system.” As much as I appreciate any defense of books, I had to cringe a bit when I heard books being described as a kind of “information delivery system.” For lovers of books, calling them a kind of “information delivery system” is akin to describing eating as a kind of “fuel delivery system.” It’s possible to do, of course, and not entirely untrue, but one feels that a crucial element of the experience has gone missing.
Several years ago Dr. Leon Kass, former head of the President’s Council on Bioethics during the George W. Bush administration, wrote a wonderful book entitled The Hungry Soul in which he argued that “eating” among human beings was not merely about “feeding.” It could be (and in fact generally should be) a much more civilized and civilizing activity. When “eating” is done in a social context with one’s family or friends, such meals, with their conversation and good cheer, are not only about feeding one’s body, but also about feeding one’s soul. Thus the title of his book: The Hungry Soul.
So too, I would argue, with books, the point isn’t merely to fill one’s brain with information, any more than eating is merely about filling one’s belly with food. Reading can be (and in fact generally should be) a social activity — a conversation one enters into with the author, and then perhaps with others. That is why good books should be well-made. Beautifully and substantially-made books suggest something that deserve to be pored over at length, just as one lingers with friends after a wonderful meal. Beautiful, well-made books suggest something one will come back to over and over again, taking up the discussion again where one left off, moving it forward, taking a break, and coming back again.
Indeed, failure on the part of a publisher to produce a sturdy book can be a terrible disservice to readers, especially when the book is a good book. This is why I’ve often cursed the publisher of Paul Johnson’s Modern Times, a book I’ve come back to again and again. Even though I’m grateful they published it, the book fell apart before I had managed to get through even one-half of its 880 pages. I have to be careful to shove the sections that have fallen out of the book back in between the dog-eared covers every time I look up a passage or want to re-read a section. I shouldn’t have to carry a file folder to keep together the pieces of my used books. That’s what the binding of the book is supposed to be for.
I suppose I should be grateful though. When I first started reading Modern Times, it was only because my friend Ed Callahan had insisted I do so. And not wanting to purchase a big, fat book that I wasn’t sure I would enjoy, I borrowed his copy. When it quickly fell apart, I had to buy Ed a new copy and keep the fallen-apart one for myself. How he ever read the whole book without having it fall apart in his hands, I’ll never know. He must have handled it with kid gloves and refused to open the pages wider than four inches apart.
I want books to be beautiful, but I also want them to be sturdy enough to take my markings. If I’m going to come back to a book over and over again, I want to remember how the conversation went last time we met. Some people think the practice of making notations in books is horrible. Books should be kept in pristine condition, they think, so that the next user can get it in completely clean condition. This is a habit inherited, I think, from our days as school-children when you had to hand back your book at the end of the year in the same condition in which you got it. And the notion was that these same school books would be used over and over again by other school children for many years to come. (How long ago those times seem now, now that textbook manufacturers have figured out how to make minor changes every year or so, so as to force school districts to buy an entirely new set of textbooks.) But when I was a child, I spake as a child, and used books in childish ways. Now that I am an adult, I buy my own books and read them as an adult should: namely, with pencil in hand. For most of my life, my reading was too “passive,” which is why I generally didn’t like reading. It wasn’t until I started making notations in the margins that I started to really read and thus learn to love reading.
In fact, I like finding other people’s markings in books, even library books. One of the benefits of being around a collection of books that has been used by great scholars over the years is that one sometimes finds invaluable notations. I remember once finding a note in the margin of a book on the Twelfth Century here at Notre Dame that had been written by noted Twelfth-Century scholar Jerome Taylor. Next to a certain paragraph, Professor Taylor had drawn a line and written simply: “No! J. T.” Not only had Professor Taylor disagreed with the judgment of the author, he wanted to make clear to all future readers of the book that they should disagree too. And he was willing to put his initials to validate the judgment. He had done this, as it turns out, in any number of books, and we were always delighted to find these little “gifts” of his in the margins of books we had checked out. Finding “corrections,” or even evidence of disagreement, in the margins of these supposedly authoritative tomes, was a wonderfully liberating experience: “So, there’s more to be said about this topic than what we find between the pages of this one book? Interesting. I guess I’d better not state these conclusions as though they were demonstrated facts, because I’ll be likely be made to look foolish in class. Thank you, Professor Taylor.”
Many of us dreamed that one day perhaps we would be the ones smart enough to put “corrections” in the margins of the books in the Medieval Institute library. It would undoubtedly take years of study, but some day we might actually know enough to leave a little “gift” for a future young scholar in the margin of one of these books. But not yet. Not for some years to come.
Beyond my gratitude for the wisdom and guidance of an older and wiser scholar, these little signs of previous passage there within the pages of the book often provided comforting evidence of a communal labor. Doing research in a library among the aisles of dry, dusty books can be a fairly solitary experience, as can writing. It’s nice sometimes to hear the echoes of someone else’s footsteps and be reminded that one is not entirely alone. In Robert Frost’s poem “The Tuft of Flowers,” he describes working alone in a field cutting hay with a large, heavy scythe. A butterfly suddenly appears and leads his eye to a small tuft of flowers that had purposefully been left uncut by another working man.
But he had gone his way [writes Frost], the grass all mown,
And I must be, as he had been,–alone,
“As all must be,” I said within my heart,
“Whether they work together or apart.”
But later in the poem, Frost realizes that his encounter with the tuft of flowers has changed him. This sign of another person’s loving care having preceded him there has caused him to reconsider the question of his ultimate solitude and appreciate the deeper, sometimes invisible connections between human beings:
“Men work together,” I told him from the heart,
“Whether they work together or apart.”
So too with the little “tufts of flowers” I sometimes find left in the margins of books, they leave evidence that someone else has trod that path before and worked the same field, stopping to wonder at, be amazed by, or question some of the same things I have.
Well-made books can be a wonderful repository of wisdom, if treated with respect. Treating them with respect, however, doesn’t mean leaving them alone and untouched, any more than treating fellow dinner guests with respect means not talking to them in the interests of letting them eat! Well-made and beautiful books are like a great banquet of learning to which one has been invited to feast. In the early days of going to banquets, one wisely just sits and listens to the other guests in awe. But as one gets older, the joy comes from the give-and-take of entering into the conversation.
The problem one encounters with beautiful books, however, is the problem one encounters with many beautiful things: there are people who insist on locking things of beauty away in museums. And museums, I’m afraid to say, are generally cold, sterile mausoleums for dead art. Take a beautiful painting of the Last Supper that has been hanging in a refectory monastery for hundreds of years and transport it onto a cold, white, sterile wall in a museum where well-dressed people can stare at it and whisper in quiet, hushed tones in its presence, and you’ve killed it. Better to have left it where it was, in the surroundings the artist intended for it to be seen.
So too, people who take beautiful books and lock them away unseen and untouched on dusty bookshelves have put them in a kind of tomb. Better to have left them out on the table to be read by the casual passer-by. Libraries, like museums, are often burial places where forgotten books go to have their bones interred. Anyone who has spent any time around rare book rooms knows how difficult it can be to get a hold of any of the books entombed there. I once had a librarian at just such a rare book room say to me (as she was denying me access to the book I needed): “My goal is to make sure these books are still here in 400 years.” To which I replied: “What would have been the point of saving them if in 400 years no one is actually allowed to read them?” For some librarians, “readers” are just an annoyance. They get in the way of what they take to be the librarian’s real business, which is simply the saving and cataloging of books. The interests of readers are not always what libraries are about, any more than the interests of art lovers are always what museums are about.
I want my books to be beautiful, but I also want them to be sturdy, precisely because they’re something I want to come back to again and again. For me, books are not pristine works of art — things of beauty that must never be touched but only appreciated from a distance. That would be to turn a “meal” that has the potential to be a “banquet” into one of those very stuffy “formal dinners” where everyone is dressed up, no one knows one another, and everyone is terribly uncomfortable: gorgeous surroundings, sumptuous table settings, lovely string quartet, but a lousy party because the essential social and spiritual elements are missing.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m as impressed as anyone else when I see a long line of beautiful leather-bound volumes in a row: “The Harvard Classics,” “Complete Works of Emerson,” “The Masterpieces of Literature and Poetry,” “Great Biographies.” And yet, sadly I often see such rows of leather-bound volumes as mere decoration in places where real readers would rarely be found: hotel lobbies, expensive restaurants, the immaculately-kept living rooms of wealthy people. I’m impressed by the beauty of the volumes, but a bit depressed when I carefully pull back the front cover and hear the spine crack because the book has never been opened.
There is something not only beautiful, but (dare I say it) comforting about well-made older books: the look, the feel, the smell, the elegant type-font, the slightly-yellowed pages. Picking up a well-made book from the early part of the Twentieth Century can have the same effect as listening to a lecturer with an Oxford-type English accent: it makes the words seem smarter than sometimes they actually are. When I hear an English accent, I always think the speaker must be saying something profoundly intelligent, which isn’t always the case. So too when I pick up an older, well-made book, I often imagine that something important is to be found inside, which isn’t always the case either. Granted, you can’t judge a book by its cover, but a well-made, beautifully-bound book is a gift that keeps on giving to the reader, year after year after year.
Some readers may be struck by the irony of a person taking to the internet to write in praise of books. Rest assured, I am not unaware of the oddity of my situation, but two points suggest themselves. The first involves admitting what must be an obvious point: namely, that I satisfy myself with the same thing most writers satisfy themselves with most of the time: that is, publishing wherever they can, whenever they can, for whoever will read what they’ve written. In Jane Austen’s day, publishers published books. Even shorter pieces were bound and published as pamphlets, and “pamphletting” was a major way of getting one’s ideas out to readers. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense was first a “pamphlet,” as well as one of the runaway best-sellers of its day. But a pamphlet is really just a smaller version of a book. By the time Charles Dickens was writing, however, publishing was such that Dickens published much of his work serially in the newspaper. So too, G. K. Chesterton published many of his essays in the newspaper, just as C. S. Lewis published most of the essays for which he has become renowned in magazines or literary journals.
The lesson, I take it, is that one publishes where and how one can. But of this I am sure: Just as Dickens’ tales were eventually re-published in books, as were the essays of Chesterton and Lewis, where they have been loved and enjoyed by generations of readers, so too if anything one reads on the internet is to last, it will need to be re-printed on the pages of an actual book.
In the mean time, however, let me make this simple suggestion. When you find an article you like, choose a nice readable type-font — like Book Antiqua or Bookman Old Style — then print the article out on a few sheets of nice, white paper. And then, while you read, take those pages and mark them up mercilessly, underlining sentences and making notes in the margin as you go. (Personally, I prefer blue ink or pencil. I find the contrast between the dark black ink of the book and the blue ink of the pen or the lighter black lines of the pencil visually pleasing. But you’ll have to find what pleases you.) Then, if the article is worth it, you might even punch holes in those marked-up pages and put them in a three-ring binder for future reading. If you did that, you’d probably get a whole lot more out of what you read, because you’d be making a book of your own of the things you’re interested in. The next stage, of course, would be to start making beautiful illuminations around the margins of your pages — artistic depictions that express your reactions to the written text. Then — like those medieval monks who labored dutifully to preserve the written word in all its glory in a culture that had lost nearly all interest in it — then you’d really be setting a beautiful table to feed your hungry soul.
Randall Smith is an Associate Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas, currently on sabbatical leave at the Jacques Maritain Center at the University of Notre Dame.